Bob Bernick’s notebook: The value of the moderate middle

What happens in Utah when top political party officeholders lose the support of their right wing or left wing party loyalists?

In the end, history shows, the officeholders survive – maybe even win big victories in their general elections.

But the hard intra-party feelings can linger for years – and show up as independent political confrontations years later.

Here are just a few examples:

Way back in the mid-1980s the late-Gov. Norm Bangerter decided to take a big chance: Propose large tax hikes for public education.

Bangerter was well-liked, public opinion polls showed. And he had Republican majorities in the Utah House and Senate.

But when the local media dubbed Bangerter’s initiatives as the “largest tax hike in the state’s history,” his right-wing turned against him.

With the help of conservative talk radio, a tax revolt sprang up.

Bangerter beat back several challengers from his right wing in the state GOP convention in 1988. Then called a special legislative session to give a small tax cut.

But Bangerter barely survived a three-way general election.

Years later, Bangerter joined with other former GOP and Democratic luminaries in 2013-14 supporting the Count My Vote petition that would do away with the caucus/delegate/convention process in Utah – a process that nearly caused his ouster in 1988.

Years later, in 2000, former-Gov. Mike Leavitt was seeking a third, four-year term. He was popular among all Utahns, and most Republicans.

But the party’s right wing was against him. In a bizarre state GOP convention that year some no-names challenged the governor.

After several rounds of voting, unhappy delegates forced Leavitt into a primary against an unknown candidate from Leavitt’s right – a man many delegates knew little about before convention day.

Leavitt swept Glen Davis aside easily in the statewide primary. But Davis actually beat Leavitt in several rural, GOP-dominated counties.

Leavitt went on to be one of the major backers of Count My Vote – which in new language aims to keep the SB54 compromise, dual-path process for candidates to make their party’s primary ballot.

One route allows candidates to bypass their county or state delegate conventions altogether, and only appeal to primary voters.

Several years ago moderate Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson found himself challenged in the Democratic Party.

The female challenger was from his party’s left wing, a gay rights advocate.

No way this woman could have kept Matheson’s seat, should she have won the party’s nomination.

Yet left-leaning delegates forced Matheson into a primary against her, which he won handily – going on to win another term in the U.S. House.

Some may argue that it is proper – even need be – for party officeholders to be pulled back ever so often by their partisan stalwarts, delegates, Central Committee members, and such.

GOP officeholders need to be in touch with their right wing; Democrats be aware of their party’s progressives, liberal base.

In touch is one thing.

But beholden is another.

In the 2016 GOP governor’s race, Gov. Gary Herbert finished second in the state convention, yet went on to win big in the primary.

In the 2017 special 3rd Congressional District GOP contest, now-Rep. John Curtis finished fifth in the district GOP convention – eliminated via that process.

Because Curtis qualified for the primary ballot via the voter signature route, he handily beat the convention right-wing favorite Chris Herrod in the primary. And Curtis coasted to the seat earlier this month in the final election.

The extremes in both political parties got their say in conventions – supporting candidates that later proved way out of step with rank-and-file party primary voters.

It is always wise for officeholders to remember the moderate middle. And that compromise and working together is rarely a bad thing.